Jessica Pimentel as Maria, Taylor Schilling as Piper.
Orange Is the New Black has reached yet another moment that forces you to stop and think, “Wait, why was this show considered a comedy?” Sure, it’s funny that Angie’s badass weight-lifting cry is “The lion, the witch, and the wardrobe!” The Judy King plot is still primarily played for goofs. But when an episode’s main story is an all-too-plausible slide into mental illness and homelessness, and our one-time protagonist gets a swastika branded onto her arm, OITNB is about as funny as a trip to SHU.
Although season four has told intriguing stories in its first half — especially when it considers the prison’s overcrowding and Caputo’s struggle with MCC corporate culture — it has distinctly lacked any striking, illuminating flashbacks. Maritza’s story was light, Healy’s flashback was tragic but not particularly surprising, Soso’s seemed under-motivated, and while Maria Ruiz’s story did important expositional work, it was not individually memorable. One of the better single-character, episode-length stories was Nicky’s, and it wasn’t even a flashback.
But in episode seven, we finally get a flashback that feels gripping — and it’s all about Lolly.
Elements of the Lolly story do feel familiar. Single woman’s plight illuminates bigger political problem! March of economic progress leaves behind the ill and vulnerable! Gentrification! The plot itself is incredibly predictable, and pieces of it are so on-the-nose that it’d be easy for OITNB to make the whole thing trite. (I’m looking at you, bike cops.) In an alternate universe, the Lolly story might look a lot like an episode of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. On this erstwhile comedy, Lolly’s sad, inevitable trajectory is so painfully credible, and Lolly is so unexpectedly personable, that it’s poignant almost in spite of itself. Am I looking forward to an episode that I can describe as just plain great without any caveats? Sure. But this flashback is still a big step up from Soso.
We watch as Lolly slides from functioning reporter down to relatively stable, mentally-ill transient, and then finally to a homeless woman pushed out of her community and arrested for, essentially, looking like a homeless person in a newly wealthy neighborhood. You’ve seen The Wire. You’ve seen Law & Order. You’ve seen stories about untreated mental illness leading to homelessness. Nevertheless, Lolly is human in a way that’s rare for mentally-ill characters. The extended scene with Lolly and Healy in her time machine is really unnecessary — and it puts a huge damper on the episode’s pace — but there and elsewhere, OITNB does an impressive job of using both characters to depict mental illness as a problem with no easy answers, and one that deserves more than a shrug and a chuckle at Lolly’s paranoid theories.
At long last, the season also sees some movement in present-day Litchfield plots, even if this episode didn’t necessarily take the form I most wanted to see. On the long list of characters who deserve screen time, Piper Chapman does not rank highly — and the panty wars have been a much less appealing story line than Lorna and Suzanne’s episode of Criminal Minds: Shower Pooper, or Aleida coming to grips with who she’ll be after leaving prison. OITNB has no shortage of interesting stories; it simply spends too much time with the wrong threads.
But after Piper accidentally starts a Nazi party and fails to distance herself from people like Sankey, Brandy, and someone who actually calls herself “Skinhead Helen,” the panty wars get a lot more interesting. After Piper throws her new bunkmate to the wolves and dithers uselessly about loyalty and safety in numbers, she realizes she’s managed to alienate everyone. To the skinheads, she’s insufficiently proud of her race and the cause. To the Dominicans, she’s the evil, stuck-up, white chick who ratted on Maria to Piscatella and started an Aryan pride game. To Red and her family, Piper’s Trumpian refusal to disavow racists makes her sad and disgusting. And to Piper’s bunkmate, she’s merely an ally of convenience who didn’t support her when things got tough. After Piper cuts ties with her and then bemoans her own loneliness, it should come as no surprise that her bunkmate swiftly turns around and hands her over to the Dominicans.
(Sidenote: It’s possible that Piper’s bunkmate’s name is never actually spoken aloud. It’s certainly far too easy to miss it, whenever it may have been uttered. But if you’re watching with the captions on, you’ll discover that her name is apparently Hapakuka. I’ve praised OITNB’s foundational commitment to its many characters — a commitment to heteroglossia that would make narrative theorists swoon — but it really cripples the story when you have to seek out a fairly important character’s name. Okay, back to the usual stuff.)
The problem with the Piper character is that she’s so much less appealing than basically everyone else on the series. Even when horrific things happen to her — and what could be more monstrous than having a swastika forcibly branded onto your arm — a small part of me still thinks, “Piper. You did this to yourself.” The final scene with Piper being held next to the lit stovetop, screaming in terror, is awful. But … COME ON. Lorna’s idle thought (“I don’t think racism should be a group activity. It’s private“), and Nicky’s dumbfounded assessment of Piper’s overreach (so don’t have any territory!) make it easy for the “she had it coming” bells to ring in my head.
Without question, though, this is the first paradigm-shifting event to come out of Litchfield’s simmering race war. I’m hopeful it will kick-start some more lively storytelling in the back half of the season.
In other stories, Nicky has indeed fallen off the sobriety bandwagon, and Red’s looming heartbreak will surely leave a blast-crater big enough to destroy the entire common room. In the meantime, she aids the Shower Pooper investigation and tells Gloria and Sister Ingalls what little she knows of Sophia’s position inside SHU. Judy’s “Chitlin’ Joe and Watermelon Sam” puppet show is every bit as blithely, cheerfully, stupidly racist as Yoga’s cringing face could’ve predicted. To balance the Judy King scales a little, Aleida’s misery about her uselessness outside the prison walls is mitigated by Judy praising her nails. Aleida’s decision to start a nail salon is heartwarming, but it’s hard not to think about how tough that road will be.
And finally, Linda From Purchasing manages to push through Caputo’s education initiative, which he immediately realizes is not so much an education plan as it is “a chain gang.” The core classes have been replaced with construction vocational courses, and he’s understandably astonished when she points out how important it is to emphasize that “it is a school, technically” because “otherwise we have to pay them their 11 cents an hour.” Somewhere, Danny Pearson is nodding emphatically and getting hauled off by a rent-a-cop.
Linda From Purchasing is such a glorious monster, I might actually love her? Her laser-eyed focus on getting Caputo to make her breakfast, her steadfast refusal to entertain his diner-bathroom sex idea, her shiny hair, the wind-blown empty expanse where all her human feelings used to be … she is a masterful creation. I’m honestly not sure whether I want her to end up running MCC, or burn out in a fireball of righteousness. But I do know one thing for certain: Whatever happens, she’ll bring it in under budget.